Liz Murray: My Fight Against The Male-Only Membership of Oxford's Vincent's Club - A Journey to Feminism

I was startled, recently, when someone referred to me as a ‘militant feminist’. While I identify as a woman and volunteer my time with gender-related projects like the Good Lad Initiative, I never felt a strong sense of connection to feminist causes. I never imagined myself writing letters, having heated debates or starting petitions. I never imagined that I would lobby for, never mind spearhead, an equality campaign at Oxford University.

This all changed one evening when I heard news that Vincent’s Club had actively voted to remain an all-male establishment. For those unfamiliar with Vincent’s Club, it is a social and athletic club in Oxford with selective membership, leather couches and a long list of prestigious and influential (male) alumni. The walls are covered with sporting photos and memorabilia. The Club’s staff know members by name. Since its inception in 1863, it has been Oxford’s ‘gentlemen’s club’ with a considerable financial endowment and plethora of networking and social events throughout the year.

I am currently in my fourth year at Oxford, completing a DPhil in Neuroscience. Throughout my time here in Oxford, I have played with the OU Netball Club and was Blues Captain last season. The Oxford athletic social scene revolves around Vincent’s Club, which had undertaken a three-year consultation process on the admission of women. All the women I spoke to in the lead up to the vote were under the impression that Vincent’s Club would vote, overwhelmingly, to admit women. These men were our friends and we used and enjoyed the space as much as they did. It was 2015. Of course the vote would pass. 

You can imagine the shock I felt when I was later forwarded the results - Vincent’s Club had voted not to admit women. My immediate reaction was unexpected and visceral. I felt physically ill. I also felt slighted, personally insulted, demoralised and disrespected. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this outcome. I had to do something. I started to feel a deep sense of anger that would later fuel my first foray into feminist activism.

I knew more people needed to know what had happened and quickly emailed all the Presidents of the OU sports clubs to encourage them to contact the Vincent’s committee and convey their disappointment with the decision. I soon became the centre of a feminist campaign against one of Oxford University’s oldest and most prestigious clubs.

For the next few weeks, I spent all my time sending emails and letters, planning future actions and garnering support. The entire time I was developing my own sense of what it meant to be a ‘feminist’ and what it felt like to experience discrimination. While I was heartened to learn that the majority of former gentlemen’s clubs in London now admit women, I was also dismayed that at each juncture women still needed to fight to be accepted. Even in my home state of Tasmania, Australia, there exists a club – the Athenaeum Club – that still refuses to admit women.

How is it that in 2015, institutionalised segregation on the basis of gender is still considered acceptable? A recent Guardian article discussed a similar type of gender-based discrimination in the London-based Garrick Club, noting that discrimination on any characteristic other than gender would be deemed abhorrent. However, gentlemen’s clubs still seem to exist with support from their members and the general public.

Throughout my campaign, I was particularly troubled by women’s support for the gender-segregated nature of the Vincent’s Club. Historically, one of the biggest opponents of men’s clubs admitting women is women’s clubs and colleges. One of the strongest opponents to the Vincent’s Club admitting women was Atalanta’s Club, a similar Oxford club founded in 1992 to ‘promote and develop women in sport’. Similarly, in Tasmania, the biggest opponent to admitting women in the Athenaeum Club was an organization called the Country Women’s Association. The Association describes the benefits of membership as “teaching and learning cooking and crafts, performing and entertaining, catering in the community and making scones at agricultural shows”. I often had to remind myself that I was leading this campaign in 2015 – not the 1950s.

Since my generation has made so many positive steps towards gender equality, such as Athena Swan Awards for supporting women in STEM and the UN campaign HeForShe, I had been lulled into the belief that the gender equality battle was almost over. The justifications for male-only membership in gentlemen’s clubs weren’t particularly sophisticated – often a variant of the idea that “men need a space away from women”. These arguments rely on an “us versus them” mentality that is embedded in all other types of discrimination on the basis of sexuality, race, religion or ability. I soon started to realize why the Vincent’s Club decision made me so angry – it suggested that my potential membership would be negative, and only on the basis of my gender.

Until the Vincent’s Club decision, I never felt that my gender defined me. I would happily assume the role of group leader among my childhood circle of friends or participate in Aussie rules football as the only girl on the team in primary school. Even as a graduate student in Oxford, I actively contributed on the committee for the Aussie rules men’s football club and volunteered with the Good Lad Initiative. The Vincent’s Club decision was truly a transformative moment for my understanding of feminism.

On a personal level, I continue to navigate the “militant feminist” stereotype among friends and peers. I have even lost friends in Oxford as a result of my activism.  I have been told that I am being ‘too pushy’, and that my anger is counterproductive. I recently attended a talk entitled the “Aptness of Anger” by Dr Amia Srinivasan (Connecticut and Corpus Christi, 2007), a philosophy fellow at All Souls College. Her talk resounded with me hugely, I have come to understand that anger in situations like this is justified, and can help fuel action. I know it has for me, and through her writings I have come to understand it better.

So what happens next with our campaign against Vincent’s Club? I think it is critical to maintain pressure on Vincent’s Club and Oxford University to take a real stand against discrimination. The University Proctors have informed me that Vincent’s Club is allowed to continue to restrict membership on the basis of gender, as its constitution was lodged in 2009 before university requirements on club constitutions were introduced. To me this makes no sense, and I think that continued pressure at this level will hopefully encourage Oxford University to take a stronger stand against discrimination at their institution.  Furthermore, I believe continued dialogue with Vincent’s Club directly about the unacceptability of their recent decision will ensure that this issue does not, and will not, go away. I would encourage anyone who is interested to contact either the University or Vincent’s Club to lodge their complaint.

However, from the perspective of Vincent’s Club, I can almost understand their commitment to maintaining the status quo. As I discovered through my first encounter with feminist activism, apathy comes easily until you personally experience the humiliation and disrespect that results from discrimination. It may be difficult, if not impossible, for Vincent’s Club to understand why such an issue “matters so much to women”, but I am optimistic that we will, sometime soon, see an end to gentlemen’s clubs at institutions like Oxford.

Liz Murray is a 2011 Rhodes Scholar from Australia, currently completing a DPhil in Neuroscience at Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry. She is a former Blues captain of the Oxford University Netball Club and spearheaded the Vincent’s Club campaign in March 2015.